Patented cost-saving technologies and highly specialized contract capacity may be what distinguishes DST Engineering Consultants Ltd. from its competition, but it's the company's Northern Ontario experience that has driven its enthusiasm and growth.
"We have very difficult conditions here," says Michael Fabius, President and CEO. "Whether it's hard rock or muskeg or extreme ranges of temperature or logistics, conditions are a lot tougher than if you were doing the same work in, say, Toronto. So that's why we felt that we have to be pretty good if we could manage what we were doing here, and that we should be able to apply that anywhere in the world."
Armed with the motto, "If you can do it in Northern Ontario, you can do it anywhere," DST Engineering has seen an annual rate of 20 per cent growth over the last decade, and has a current annual revenue of $10 million.
The company employs more than 100, incorporating a full range of engineers, scientists and contractors across its offices in Beirut, Lebanon – "Since the Middle East peace process went off the rails, there's just no investment happening there," says Fabius – as well as Thunder Bay, Sudbury, Ottawa and Kenora. By 2010, DST is expected to have offices all throughout Canada, from Western Canada to the Maritimes.
The company started out as a branch office of a Thunder Bay engineering firm in 1971, and after purchasing it in 1993, Fabius renamed it and refocused its efforts to expanding and exporting its knowledge and abilities to the world at large.
While this has led DST Engineering to become fully capable of handling many industrial tasks such as mine rehabilitation, geotechnology and foundation engineering, it’s the patented slope stabilization technology that has brought it particular attention.
Called Soil Nail and Root Technology (SNART), the process of combining engineering know-how with a specific plant cover was developed in 2000 after CN Rail asked for a cheaper, easier and more efficient way of stabilizing slope embankments.
This led to the development of a method that removed drilling and grouting from the equation of slope stabilization, with the soil nails instead being driven or vibrated into the earth and plates welded to the top of each. The shotcrete was replaced with vegetation, whose rootset would accomplish the same task more efficiently and with tremendous savings; Fabius estimates that it more than halves the cost.
This development has led to the publication of numerous technical papers, patenting in Canada and the U.S., lecture invitations from the American Society of Civil Engineers, as well as projects including a $1 million contract with the Lakehead Region Conservation Authority in Thunder Bay.
Currently working with Manitoba Highways to implement their SNART technology, DST Engineering has licensed their discovery to numerous American design-build contractors within the past year, in locations that include Minnesota, Washington and California.
This technology is so specialized that no competition currently exists for it, enabling the company to promote it on a global basis from its offices in Northern Ontario.
Slope stabilization isn't the only realm in which it has strong niche interests; DST Engineering's capacity for demolishing buildings has led it into highly specialized work in 2005, such as the demolition of Canada's second-largest smokestack in Quebec and the destruction of large structures in downtown Winnipeg.
Fabius is as proud of the role his employees play within the company as he is of his patented technology and specialized abilities, pointing to the company's flat organizational structure. Despite its size, the company features a minimum of bureaucracy and middle managers which in turn empowers the employees.
"We give our people a lot of rope and responsibility," he says. "We have project managers that are right out of school and some project managers that have been with us for years. They get good tools to work with, but they also get total responsibility and they do not have anybody looking over their shoulder all the time. It makes things kind of crazy and hectic sometimes, but somehow it seems to work."